Study Guide

A Summer Tragedy

by Arna Bontemps

A Summer Tragedy Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Jeff Patton has farmed the same acres on Greenbriar Plantation for forty-five years. He loves the land, but life has been physically demanding and the shares system has kept him locked in poverty. A recent stroke has left him lame, and he fears that another will make him a helpless burden on his wife, Jennie, who has been blind for years and is now frail. Both are sound of mind, but their life has been reduced to a series of losses, including the deaths of five adult children in the last two years. They share a state of constant grief and anxiety.

Jeff struggles to don the moth-eaten formal attire that he wears only on rare occasions, such as weddings. He feels excitement and fear as he and Jennie prepare for a trip. A short time later, driving through the countryside with Jennie in their old Model T Ford, Jeff feels a familiar thrill, as he surveys the vitality of the crops and natural vegetation. He feels again the determination and pride that always have accompanied his sense of his mental and physical strengths, required for survival on the land, but if he takes his hands from the steering wheel, they shake violently.

Jennie has repeatedly prompted Jeff to make this trip, relying on his courage to match her belief in the rightness of their decision. As they near their destination, however, she becomes wracked by grief at the thought of leaving everything behind. Crying like a child, she questions whether they should continue. Jeff is tortured by his knowledge of what they are about to do and would like to turn back, but he assures his wife that they must be strong. He knows that they have fully considered their fate, and that more reflection would merely lead to the same, inevitable conclusion. They both know that life has become intolerable, and would only get worse. After they regain their resolve and composure, Jeff drives the car into the deep water of the Mississippi.